Drooling at Seafood Temptations
As I strolled past tables and benches of hungry diners, my nose became infused with delectable aromas. If temptation has a smell it must be prawns sizzling in garlic. I sniffed enviously as the pink juicy prawns passed right under my nose and I visibly drooled at the sight of bright red crayfish, crispy calamari and a plate of good old fish and chips.
My resistance to temptation utterly failed me and I had to sit down under the shade of an umbrella with a cool drink before being able to sensibly decide between menus offering such innovative dishes as mussels in champagne and saffron, baby calamari stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat, cajun sushi, angelfish pate and smoked crocodile tail with granadilla and orange dressing.
Lobster Worth its Weight in Gold
Crayfish (rock lobster) must be the most desirable of all seafoods. This melt-in-the-mouth delicacy was once very cheap in the Cape but is now referred to in the markets as 'Diamonds and Gold' or 'Red Gold'. Its shell glistens a vibrant red when cooked and it is almost worth its weight in gold.
High export demand means that even the local restaurateurs are forced to take their chances on availability and pay inflated prices. Price alone however, cannot keep a lobster-lover from enjoying his favourite meal. Have it cold with creamy fresh mayonnaise, grilled with garlic butter or baked in a cream and sherry sauce sprinkled with a touch of Parmesan.
The crayfish and perlemoen (abalone) season opens in the Cape each November and runs through to March or April. A permit is required to catch them but anybody can buy one. If catching your own makes it taste better, hire a boat and skipper in Hout Bay and head off towards a crayfish hot spot. The best locations are off the rocky shores towards Cape Point, which can get a little choppy to say the least.
If like me you have a tendency for seasickness, save yourself the discomfort. Instead of bobbing about on the waves, take a leisurely walk over to Snoekies Fish Market at the end of the docks and buy a couple of fresh crayfish at the best price you are likely to find.
Hout Bay is a major fishing port and the centre of the crayfishing fleet. Wandering around the harbour I was lucky enough to spot a little wooden fishing boat sidling quietly up to the dock.
Without noise and fuss crate upon crate of spikey lobsters were carefully unloaded and jealously guarded. Whisked away from my admiring eyes they were wheeled off to be weighed and selected for export.
Old Fashioned Fish 'n Chips
Some of this catch was destined to travel only a hundred metres or so across to Mariner's Wharf Fish Market. At this up-marked delicatessen the seafood is beautifully displayed and you can pick your own live lobster straight out of the seawater tank. Mariner's Wharf is modelled on the San Francisco harbour complex and encompasses a restaurant, bar, curio and jewellery shop and a queue at what must be the most popular fish and chip takeaway in the Cape.
Two more well frequented fish and chip shops serving theirs the old fashioned way wrapped in paper, are situated near Snoekies at the other end of the harbour just a gulls spit from the sea. Whichever eatery you choose it will be the freshest fish and chips you will ever eat.
If the idea of selecting your own live crayfish and having it cooked for you appeals, then drop into Panama Jacks Restaurant deep in the Cape Town docks. It is a rough and ready kind of place with a laid back atmosphere. Languishing in their enormous shellfish tank are over 80 crayfish and dozens of wild and cultivated oysters.
Your choice is weighed and priced then prepared and served within about half an hour. A few perlemoen also reside in the tank and suction themselves slowly around the base and sides. The difficulty of preparation of this mollusc means that you will not find perlemoen on the menu.
Down in the Harbour
To sample this delicately flavoured calamari-like flesh you must visit one of the few restaurants serving it such as The Black Marlin near Simon's Town. What could be tough as old boots if prepared without expertise is transformed into delicious tender schnitzel or served in a subtle cocktail sauce. The Black Marlin is renowned for its fresh top quality seafood and their menu boasts mature oysters from Knysna, large full flavoured mussels from Saldanha and delicious firm cape salmon from their own ocean-view doorstep.
To buy the freshest cheapest seafood in the Cape I paid a visit to Kalk Bay harbour on False Bay. It was not only enlightening but also a great photo opportunity. As soon as the colourfull boats pull up to the wharf, the day's catch is hurled uncerimoniously through the air onto the dockside.
Stand back because a slap in the face with a wet fish is no fun - trust me, not to mention that your feet will soon be swimming in sea water and stray fish guts. The harbour is buzzing with lunchtime activity and the overfed seals bob about excitedly at the prospect of fishy scraps.
I took advice on what to buy for my supper from one of the traders named Muriel. Dressed in white apron and white wellies Muriel gave me some good tips (and told me a few fishy stories too). 'I'm Lady Di', she says holding up a long silvery snoek for my approval. 'I sit there at home eating me crayfish toppies like I was the Queen,' she adds. 'I've got a nice tongue and I like me red roman, yellowtail and elf. Now snoek I don't like so much, it's too unpredictable.' Having made that statement she put down the snoek and gave me a yellowtail.
Free From the Sea
March in the Cape is when the sea offers its bounty during a bizarre occurrence known as the 'Sardine Run'. Thousands of little harders, similar to sardines, swim into Hout Bay and wriggle around in the shallows. They sometimes come so close to the shore that you can wade around knee deep and collect them by the bucketful. Boney but small enough to eat whole, they are perfect thrown just as they are on the braai.
Black and white mussels too can be collected year round from many of the Cape's rocky Atlantic beaches. The daily allowance is 50 black mussels and 20 white mussels. To locate the hidden white mussels I was taught to perform a peculiar version of the twist in the shallow surf whilst digging around in the soft sand with my toes. Quite soon I hit upon something hard under my feet and as I leaned down to grasp at it an icy wave broke right over the top of me. Stumbling and splattering I emerged dripping and triumphantly holding my first white sand mussel.
Mussels can be absolutely delicious but to ensure they are safe to eat you should follow a few simple rules: Keep well clear of areas likely to be polluted. Collect at low tide from rocks which are submerged at high tide. Discard any mussels that remain shut once cooked. Check with the Department of Fisheries for toxic red tide. Red tide is a plankton upon which sea creatures feed but which contains fatal paralysing toxins. A quick check is all that is needed to put your mind at rest.
Cape Town has so much to offer the fish loving foodie and each Capetonian has their own favourite seafood dish and favourite restaurant in which to eat it. The good restaurants are far too numerous to mention but a stroll along any coastline promenade and a quick sniff at the air will lead you to the perfect place to indulge your seafood senses and groaning stomach. Enjoy!
The author of this article is Carrie Hampton and she can be contacted on email: email@example.com
Copyright © 2002 Carrie Hampton. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.